‘The Tempest’ at Round House is big, bold, and magical

“We are such stuff / As dreams are made on…” So says Prospero, the vengeful mage at the heart of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. He might very well be speaking of the Tempest now raging at Round House Theatre in collaboration with Folger Theatre. In the hands of co-directors and adapters Aaron Posner and Teller (he of the stage magic duo Penn and Teller), this rendition of one of the Bard’s most enigmatic tales delivers on its promise of spectacle—and much, much more besides.

Eric Hissom (Prospero) and Nate Dendy (Ariel) in ‘The Tempest’ at Round House Theatre. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The Tempest follows Prospero (Eric Hissom), the onetime Duke of Milan who was overthrown by his conniving brother Antonio (Cody Nickell) and banished to a mysterious island with his young daughter, Miranda (Megan Graves). Twelve years later, Prospero concocts a tempest to toss the passing Antonio and a coterie of other dignitaries, including the King of Naples (KenYatta Rogers) and his son Ferdinand (Ro Boddie), into the sea. When the castaways wash up on shore, Prospero summons his indentured servants, the spirit Ariel (Nate Dendy) and barbarian Calaban (Hassiem Muhammad and Ryan Sellers), to help him exact his revenge. While Ariel makes mischief with the King and his companion Gonzala (Naomi Jacobson), Antonio and the King’s brother Sebastian (Kevin Mambo) hatch a devious plan of their own. Calaban, meanwhile, strikes up a partnership with the bumbling cook Trinculo (Richard R. Henry) and drunken baker Stephano (Kate Eastwood Norris) and makes his own play for his freedom. As his trap comes together, Prospero seizes upon his daughter’s newfound infatuation with the rescued Ferdinand, seeing their potential marriage as another pathway toward reclaiming his legitimacy. However, the couple’s budding love moves him more than he could imagine, testing his quest for vengeance even as his prey draws closer to their comeuppance.

Ro Boddie (Ferdinand), Eric Hissom (Prospero), and Megan Graves (Miranda) in ‘The Tempest’ at Round House Theatre. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Posner and Teller’s production, finely tuned after previous mountings around the country, will get plenty of praise for its consummate magical craft, and for good reason. Magicians Teller, Johnny Thompson, and Nate Dendy have given the show a full bag of tricks: close-up card magic, disappearing acts, nefarious contraptions, optical illusions, trapdoors. Spearheaded by the superb Dendy and choreographed by the renowned Pilobolus, the cast and crew take to each challenge with skill and flair (one classic switcheroo in particular is a bona fide showstopper). Yet while the tricks surprise and delight, none are performed purely for their own merits. Each serves the greater whole, whether by illustrating Ariel’s impish abilities, accentuating Prospero’s command over the island, or furthering the story through visual metaphor and old-school stagecraft. Even the classics of the genre—a levitating body with a hoop passed over it, for example—are endowed with deeper meaning by Posner and Teller’s considered direction.

Even without its deft sleight of hand, this Tempest would still be a feast for the eyes and ears. Dan Conway’s glitzy set, Sarah Cubbage’s polished costumes, and Thom Weaver’s brilliant lights evoke the stage magic heyday of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, painting Prospero as a traveling showman of yesteryear. A live band featuring Manny Arciniega (percussion), Lizzie Hagstedt (vocals and accordion), Kanyasha Williams (vocals and percussion), and Ian M. Riggs (bass and vocals) accompanies the tale with jazzy renditions of Tom Waits standards and underscores the magic with instrumental flourishes. At its best, The Tempest finds genuine harmony between Shakespeare’s inimitable language, the band’s jaunty and soulful tunes, and Teller’s finely honed illusions. It’s big, brassy, and bold, but miraculously never overstuffed.

Apart from its technical marvels, this Tempest also benefits from a solid cast. Graves and Boddie make a charming pair of lovers, Henry and Norris earn laughs as the cook and baker, and Rogers, Nickell, Mambo, and Jacobson have the gravitas befitting their characters’ station. Indeed, despite a minor tendency on some parts to shout the Bard’s speeches, the only “problem” in the casting department is that so many have the thankless task of sharing the stage with Dendy’s Ariel and Muhammad and Sellers’s doubled-up Calaban. Not only does Dendy dazzle with his sleight of hand as do Muhammad and Sellers with their feats of athleticism, but all three also find shades of ambition, longing, and hurt as Prospero’s beleaguered slaves desperately in search of their release.

Center: Ryan Sellers and Hassiem Muhammad as Caliban with the cast of ‘The Tempest’ at Round House Theatre. Photo by Scott Suchman.

If there is a true beating heart to this Tempest, however, it is Hissom. The role of Prospero is riddled with potential pitfalls: a temptation to be overly grand and declamatory; the difficult pivot between vengeful and gentle; a tendency to shy away from his dominion over Ariel and Calaban, a problematic aspect for the modern audience. Thankfully, Hissom sidesteps these challenges with ease. His Prospero is alternately showy and fussy, posturing and self-effacing, given to genuine rage, real gentleness, and pathetic self-pity. Indeed, some of the finest moments in this production are the ones where Hissom is left alone to make magic with nothing more than his own body and the Bard’s time-honored text.

What is truly special about a production like this is that it is even more than the sum of its exceptional parts. Shakespeare and stage magic can pull a crowd on their own, but together they make a Tempest that gives life to illusions and power to an old magician’s quest for justice. Audiences can take heart from the show’s extension through January 15: plenty of time to experience the wonders for themselves.

Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

The Tempest plays through January 15, 2023, at Round House Theatre – 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD. For tickets ($46–$117 plus fees), call the box office at 240-644-1100 or go online. (Learn about Round House’s special discounts here.)

The program for The Tempest is available online here.

COVID Safety: Masks are required for all guests, except while eating or drinking in the lobby café area. Round House Theatre’s full health and safety policy is here.